Commentary: Special education funding vital for many students

By Elizabeth Loftus

There’s a question, residing within the bigger question of “Why should we fully fund education in Washington state?” It is an incredibly important question to think about. Why should we care about special education?

Do you have a family member or friend with a disability or a medical disorder? I do. My brother has attention deficit disorder. As a kid growing up, people often thought he was lazy or forgetful, but smart. They overlooked his day-to-day struggle to complete simple tasks like cleaning up his dishes, remember to put his homework in his backpack or finishing a paper for class. It wasn’t until he was in high school that we got his diagnosis. He was able to get extra help to stay organized, to help break down assignments and to manage his time.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 11 percent of children ages 4 to 17 have been diagnosed with attention defifict hyperactivity disorder. That is 6.4 million children who need the same supports my brother needs. Where else would he have gotten those supports but school?

Are you the parent of a child with a disability? Does your child have a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder? According to the CDC, 1 in 68 children in the United States has been identified as having autism. That can be mild to severe, but either way, it requires special therapies, routines and diets. Access to speech and language supports, access to social skills training, being able to handle crowds and stores and school, all of these things affect families of children with autism.

The support and training that schools offer students with autism, particularly in Washington state, are second to none. Our teachers come from some of the best universities that specialize in working with autism. Paraprofessionals are available to help provide access to general education classrooms and other environments that enrich the lives of those students.

Are you a teacher with a special education student in your classroom? Did you and your students benefit from including and accepting a child with special needs into your classroom? Did you struggle? Was it disruptive? Did you have a special education teacher or paraprofessional help support you and the student in your class, giving them much-needed interaction and acceptance by their peers? Could you have done that without them?

Are you a special education teacher? Do you have a crowded classroom full of materials you have bought with your own money out of desperation because you are already over budget? You might have spent money on fidgets, special seats, rewards, science experiments, learning websites and materials. You do all of that and more. Do you wait out a tantrum, or sit with a child in trauma? Do you struggle to meet the needs of the many students you serve every day, with limited staff and resources? Do you go home tired and worried? Do you come back the next day with a smile on your face and open arms?

Do you have a disability? Did you have a special teacher, paraprofessional, or an occupational therapist who helped you through a difficult time? Taught you skills for coping, strategies to learn, and helped you make friends? Did you learn that even though you were different, that you were still special and worthwhile? Did you thrive?

Maybe you are one of these people. Maybe you aren’t. But someone is. I am. My parents and brother are. My wonderful special education team, students and families are. They matter. I matter. Special education funding in Washington state matters.

So ask yourself again, “Why should special education matter to me?”

Elizabeth Loftus teaches at Olympic View Elementary School in Oak Harbor. She is the Northwest Education Service District No. 189 Regional Teacher of the Year for 2017.

Special needs students and their buddies dance the day away at Perfect Prom

Special needs students and their buddies from Aiken County public high schools boogied down to “Uptown Funk,” line danced to the “Electric Slide” and sang along with “Man in the Mirror” on Friday morning at Perfect Prom.

With the girls wearing sequined prom dresses and party shoes and the boys in suits and ties, more than 200 students from Aiken, South Aiken, Midland Valley, North Augusta and Wagner-Salley high schools – with their teachers – packed the community room at Aiken Electric Cooperative, to have fun and celebrate friendship, as spring begins and the school year winds down.

Students in Project Unify clubs helped plan the prom, chose the carnival theme and menu and created and put up the decorations, which included centerpieces made from boxes of popcorn and animals crackers in keeping with the theme.

Project Unify pairs special education students with their general education buddies, said Megan Hunkins, who teaches special education at Wagener-Salley High and helped coordinate the prom.

“It’s an opportunity for all the students to come together and interact throughout the school year,” she said.

Hunkins said special education students might not feel comfortable at their school’s spring prom.

“These are kids they have been with through the year – their buddies – and it gives them a chance to dance and have fun,” she said. “My kids have been so excited to dress up and see the kids from the other schools and just have a good time.”

Katherine Thompson, who teaches special education self-contained at Midland Valley High, said Perfect Prom lets special needs students be themselves.

“They know that they’re the special people here,” said Thompson, who is also one of the directors of Special Olympics Area 15, which provided funding for the prom. “They’re all the kings and queens of the prom here. It’s awesome.”

Taking a break from the dance floor, Patience Baker and her buddy, Madison McKenzie, both juniors at North Augusta High, posed for prom pictures in front of a gold lamé curtain. For fun, McKenzie, wearing Minnie Mouse ears, and Baker, with a purple sequined bow in her hair, struck a silly pose.

McKenzie, who has been a buddy for two years, called the Perfect Prom the “greatest thing.”

“It’s just great for all the kids to get together with different schools, and they have so much fun,” she said. “It’s great seeing them so happy.”

Being a buddy is about friendship, McKenzie said.

“We’re always going to be there for them and help them with anything they need,” she said. “And for me, it helps to put myself in their shoes and understand their lives.”

Baker said she feels the same about McKenzie.

“She’s my best friend,” she said.

State education chief: Need in Erie ‘is real’ – News – GoErie.com …

But Pedro Rivera, in visit to schools, said General Assembly must agree to additional funding.

Pennsylvania Education Secretary Pedro Rivera, who nearly a month ago rejected the Erie School District’s $31.8 million financial recovery plan, is holding out hope that the district’s new plan will gain his support.

But he said lot must happen first.

The amount of the additional annual funding the district requests must be “reasonable,” and not as high as $31.8 million, Rivera said in a lengthy interview on Thursday during a visit to the Erie School District.

And he said he and Gov. Tom Wolf must be able to persuade Erie’s state lawmakers and the entire General Assembly to embrace the request and deliver the additional state aid.

“I don’t want to make a commitment because there is a process,” Rivera said. “I continue to share with the members of the General Assembly that the need here in Erie is real. Every day we have advocated for additional resources and additional support for our most struggling school districts.”

Rivera commented after touring Pfeiffer-Burleigh Elementary School and Central Career Technical School. His visit was part of Gov. Tom Wolf’s “Schools That Teach” tour and Rivera also was in Erie to speak about public education at the Jefferson Educational Society on Thursday night.

Central’s declining physical condition has become a focus for the Erie School District and its proposal to consolidate its four high schools to help offset a projected $10 million budget in 2017-18, which starts July 1. Central and Northwest Pennsylvania Collegiate Academy would remain open and accept students from East and Strong Vincent high schools, which would become middle schools.

The Erie School District had hoped Rivera would accept its initial recovery plan, including the $31.8 million in annual additional state aid, so that the district can stay solvent, improve its programs and buildings and receive what it believes is its fair share of state funding.

The rejection of the plan prompted the 11,500-student school district to proceed with its strategy to reconfigure its schools, which would save as much as $6 million a year. But the district is hoping, through the revised financial recovery plan, to get additional state aid to help delay the reconfiguration for a year, to allow more time for students to prepare; preserve sports, the arts, all-day kindergarten and other programs; and still eliminate the $10 million deficit.

Erie schools Superintendent Jay Badams and his are developing the revised plan, which is due in about two months.

“If there is a request, I would go back to the local delegation,” Rivera said of another request for additional funding. “We would have a bigger, broader discussion with members of the General Assembly and the governor and see if we can realize that investment.

“Best case scenario: We are able to secure the additional funding and we move forward. Worst case scenario, I am told I don’t have the funding to obligate the General Assembly in moving in that direction.”

Asking for more

Rivera stopped short of saying that he would reject the revised recovery plan outright if the Erie School District requests additional funding. In denying the initial plan, on Feb. 27, Rivera said he could not approve it because the district asked the Department of Education to allocate additional funding, which only the General Assembly can do. The state never told the district to refrain from asking for more money, and the plan was premised on the district detailing what resources it needs, including state aid, to remain solvent.

At the same time, Rivera on Thursday emphasized that final approval of the revised plan would be conditional on support from the General Assembly — a big condition in Harrisburg, where Wolf, a Democrat, in February presented a proposed budget to the GOP-controlled Legislature that relies largely on spending cuts to eliminate a $2 billion deficit. Wolf wants to increase general education funding by $100 million in the final budget, due by July 1.

“So I take the plan and I sit with the members of the General Assembly and I sit with the governor and I say, here’s what is shared,” Rivera said of the Erie School District’s revised proposal.

“The difficult part is when it is a dollar amount as high as $31.8 million, when the governor is asking for a $100 million increase overall and then we are asking for almost a third of that for an individual district. I couldn’t even start a conversation with the General Assembly around that dollar amount.

“So I think a responsible submission allows us to come to the table with the General Assembly in a responsible manner.”

Rivera said he understood why the Erie School District requested the $31.8 million. It is an amount in line with what the district would receive in annual state aid if the state’s new basic education formula, which the General Assembly passed in 2016, were retroactive instead of applying to only new state funding.

“I do believe they worked hard and did their due diligence in terms of what they believe should be supported,” Rivera said.

‘We want to find a fix’

During the tour of the schools, Rivera spoke at length with Badams and Brian Polito, the Erie School District’s chief financial officer, who will become superintendent on July 1. They talked about the needs at Central and the other schools.

Rivera also met with Badams and the district’s stop staff in a private meeting at the school district administration building. Badams said the talks provided him direction, but, as before, no guarantees that the district will get additional funding.

“I feel I have a clearer sense of what is expected of us in our financial plan and I have a better understanding that our primary task will be to convince the General Assembly that Erie needs significant help,” Badams said.

“I also feel better and have a sense that PDE is advocating for us,” Badams said, referring to Rivera and the state Department of Education. “But in the meantime we are going to have continue planning for the likelihood that there isn’t anything extra for us.”

The General Assembly delivered last-minute help to the Erie School District in July 2016. As part of the state budget, it approved $4 million in one-time emergency funding so the district could balance its budget in 2016-17. In exchange, the district agreed to develop the financial recovery plan, which it submitted to the state Dec. 6.

Two Erie lawmakers who toured the schools with Rivera on Thursday said they continue to push for more funding for the Erie School District. They said they were grateful for Rivera’s visit, particularly to Central Tech.

“When you see the issues first hand, the issues are more than just accounting problems,” said state Sen. Dan Laughlin of Millcreek Township, R-49th Dist., who was elected in November and made getting additional funding for the Erie School District a main point of his campaign.

“I think they will get what they need,” state Rep. Pat Harkins of Erie, D-1st Dist., said of the Erie School District.

Harkins said he would like to see a solution that provides the Erie School District with guaranteed additional funding in the years ahead. He said he wants to prevent the district from having to plead with Harrisburg for more money each year to avoid insolvency.

“That is what the hope is,” Harkins said. “We want to find a fix for all those school districts” that are suffering.

His remarks echoed Rivera’s. He said he and Wolf want to improve funding equity for other school districts — Pennsylvania has a total of 500 — that need more money.

“The department has committed itself to advocating on behalf of Erie and school districts like Erie and will continue to do so,” Rivera said.

As for Erie’s chances for getting more funding, he said: “I am hopeful. Of course, there are so many factors that come into play.” 

Ed Palattella can be reached at 870-1813 or by email. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/ETNpalattella.

URI general education requirements revamped – URI Today

KINGSTON, R.I.- March 24, 2017- The general education course requirements at the University of Rhode Island no longer vary across majors, and instead are based on learning outcomes that apply to all University programs.

On Wednesday, March 29 from 11 a.m.-1:30 p.m. Rachel DiCiocco, the director of the new general education program, along with University College for Academic Success, will hold an event that will allow students to learn more about the new program and how it can benefit them. The event will be held in the Memorial Union.

In the fall, the new general education program was introduced to the incoming freshman class and will be used for all classes to follow. Current sophomores, juniors, and seniors have the option to switch from the old general education requirements to the new ones if it would benefit their academic track.

“The new program developed out of a need to revitalize general education and deliver a program that provides our students with a contemporary, engaging, and rigorous liberal learning experience” DiCiocco said. “The new program allows students to explore, challenge, and create through interdisciplinary inquiry and helps them develop the critical thinking and communication skills essential for student success at URI and beyond.”

The former guidelines for general education were set by the University, but could have been altered within different colleges as some colleges required more credits in certain areas than others. With the new general education requirements, students will complete a total of 40 credits that fulfill four key objectives through 12 measurable learning outcomes.

Learning outcomes, the base of the new program, include building knowledge of diverse peoples and cultures, intellectual and interdisciplinary competencies, exercising social responsibility, and the Grand Challenge overlay.

“Grand Challenge courses are designed to provide a stimulating and innovative course experience that addresses significant global challenges and broadens students’ understanding of the critical issues facing them in the 21st century” said DiCiocco. Some examples of topics that are covered under the Grand Challenge learning outcome are the history of marriage, topics in disability, race, gender, and sexual identity, Earth gone mad, immigrant voices, and financial literacy and conscious capitalism.

The event, coordinated by DiCiocco, is free and will provide ample incentive to students looking to learn more about URI’s new general education requirements. Students will have the opportunity to speak to faculty and staff who will be teaching courses that fulfill each of the required learning outcomes.

Students who participate will be entered into a drawing for such prizes as early registration for fall 2017, gift cards to local establishments, and iPads. While exploring the new requirements, set up at tables around the ballroom, students will also be able to enjoy snacks and sweets provided by URI Dining Services, free Kingston Pizza, and a special appearance by Rhody the Ram.
Olivia Ross, an intern in the Marketing and Communications Department at URI and public relations major, wrote this press release.

 

Berkeley Heights Board of Education Honors Individual, Team Achievements in Athletics; Inclusion Program Highlighted

BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ—2017 state 800-meter run champion Victoria Vanriele of Gov. Livingston High School, along with the Gov. Livingston Central Jersey Group C champion boys’ and girls’ swim teams were honored at Thursday’s Berkeley Heights Board of Education meeting.

During the presentation of a plaque by board member Denis Smalley to Vanriele’s winter track coach Dan Guyton noted that the Gov. Livingston freshman was the first Gov. Livingston girl to win the State crown in the 800-meter event.

Swim team coach David Closs presented his teams, who were congratulated by board member Jeane Parker and board president Doug Reinstein.

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During the second part of the presentations for the evening, members of the township district’s special services staff outlined the district’s program for inclusion, community based instruction and post-high school planning for students served by special services.

Berkeley Heights Director of Special Services Michele Gardner noted that the top tier of the least restrictive learning environment, as reported to the state and federal government, is to have students with individualized education plans spending 80 percent of their school day in general education classes.

She added that, for 2015-2016, 74.52 percent of these students in Berkeley Heights spent 80 percent or more of their school day in general education and the goal is to have 80 percent of students with IEPs spending 80 percent or more of their day in general education.

Gardner said the goal of the next five years is to use creative classroom strategies combined with education in the community outside the classroom to move most of these students into successful careers.

The township district also has established a partnership with the New Jersey Center for Inclusive Education to improve its training and helping incorporate strategies that have been successful in other districts.

She also noted that, building off the co-teaching model in force for the last seven years at Mary Kay McMilln School, her department has budgeted for co-teacher section at Mountain Park School beginning next year. This will enable a special education teacher to be in the co-teacher classrooms throughout the school day.

District supervisor of special education Kevin Morra said that, after transition assessments and IEP planning, in collaboration with adult agencies, the Berkeley Heights schools have created in-house “job opportunities,” such as having IEP students help with vending machines and in school libraries in addition to providing community internship opportunities.

These activities are backed up by classroom-based activities in filling out job applications, conducting job searches and improving daily living skills.

Transition coordinator Steve Siebelts, noting that students have a great deal of input to the process, said it starts with a sampling of various potential occupations and then narrowing down of interests to the point where it can lead to paid employment opportunities.

On-site support provides for such activities, as resume writing and job coaching is instituted, but “fades” over time as students gain more independence.

He added local employers have been very cooperative and often request to hire students from the Berkeley Heights program.

In fact, the Berkeley Heights YMCA, in addition to employing some of the program’s students, develops outside-work activities for them such as the “Ashram for Autistics” yoga class, which meets every Friday.

Siebelts added that the township program is participating in a three-year grant, worth more than $1 million, recently awarded to the Morris-Union Jointure Commission.

The grant helps to assist in community networking, presents staff training opportunities, provides direct support of students, offers assistance with transition assessments and helps with potential expansion of social and recreational activities and shared resources.

Structured learning experience coordinator Phil Acosta listed the following employers who are participating in the program:

  • The Berkeley Heights and Summit YMCAs
  • Super Kids
  • Lord Stirling Stables in Basking Ridge
  • New Jersey Sharing Network
  • Yo Addiction
  • Walgreens in Berkeley Heights and Stirling
  • TV 35 in Cranford
  • Dean’s Greens
  • The Berkeley Heights Library
  • The Wharton Music School
  • Dunkin Donuts
  • Rich’s Automotive
  • Splurge Bakery in Millburn

Students work in maintenance, custodial work, housekeeping and clerical areas, customer services, YMCA member services, daycare, as teacher assistant, pages in the liibrary, stocking, food services, tacking and saddle cleaning, cleaning stalls and filming and video switching.

Acosta noted that one of the students employed through the program is making $9.50 per hour and one is earning $10 per hour—both substantially over the New Jersey minimum wage of $8.40 per hour.

In a video shown during the presentation, a YMCA spokeswoman said students work in the child care center, greet visitors and work at special events, all the while helping the staff and learning new responsibilities.

A mother of one of the students said her son works setting up materials and the program has given him new skills and confidence, while showing him how to handle personal finances. She also said he has taken a new interest in home improvement thanks to what he has learned.

Board member Gerard Crisonino, who works in special education, said he has heard the Berkeley Heights’ program praised on a number of committees on which he sits.

Also, board member Chris Reilly said she tells local store managers that she is more likely to shop in establishments which employ students with special needs.

On another matter at the board meeting, Superintendent of Schools Judith Rattner agreed to explore establishment of a foreign exchange program between Livingston students and students from Quebec, Canada after the program was suggested by a junior at Livingston.

The student said that, based on information from students he has spoken to in similar programs in New Providence and Millburn, students in the township program would spend a week or two in a Canadian school in efforts to further immerse themselves in French and learn about foreign countries.

In turn, the Canadian students would attend Livingston.

Rattner said the students would be assessed like the students already attending schools in the respective countries.

On another matter, Reinstein said that, over the past several months, pre-meeting board executive sessions seldom have run over half of the hour allotted for them.

He suggested that, starting immediately, the board meet in executive session from 7 to 7:30 pm instead of from 7 to 8 pm and that open board meetings begin at 7:30 pm instead of 8 pm.

The board president added that, if more time is needed, such as when retiring teachers are to be recognized at board meetings, executive sessions can begin at 6:30 pm or after the regular open meetings.

Responding to a question from the parent of one of the two student representatives on the board, he said remarks from student representatives could be scheduled later in meetings to give the students time to do homework or other activities between the time of school distmissal and board meetings.

State education chief: Need in Erie ‘is real’

But Pedro Rivera, in visit to schools, said General Assembly must agree to additional funding.

Pennsylvania Education Secretary Pedro Rivera, who nearly a month ago rejected the Erie School District’s $31.8 million financial recovery plan, is holding out hope that the district’s new plan will gain his support.

But he said lot must happen first.

The amount of the additional annual funding the district requests must be “reasonable,” and not as high as $31.8 million, Rivera said in a lengthy interview on Thursday during a visit to the Erie School District.

And he said he and Gov. Tom Wolf must be able to persuade Erie’s state lawmakers and the entire General Assembly to embrace the request and deliver the additional state aid.

“I don’t want to make a commitment because there is a process,” Rivera said. “I continue to share with the members of the General Assembly that the need here in Erie is real. Every day we have advocated for additional resources and additional support for our most struggling school districts.”

Rivera commented after touring Pfeiffer-Burleigh Elementary School and Central Career Technical School. His visit was part of Gov. Tom Wolf’s “Schools That Teach” tour and Rivera also was in Erie to speak about public education at the Jefferson Educational Society on Thursday night.

Central’s declining physical condition has become a focus for the Erie School District and its proposal to consolidate its four high schools to help offset a projected $10 million budget in 2017-18, which starts July 1. Central and Northwest Pennsylvania Collegiate Academy would remain open and accept students from East and Strong Vincent high schools, which would become middle schools.

The Erie School District had hoped Rivera would accept its initial recovery plan, including the $31.8 million in annual additional state aid, so that the district can stay solvent, improve its programs and buildings and receive what it believes is its fair share of state funding.

The rejection of the plan prompted the 11,500-student school district to proceed with its strategy to reconfigure its schools, which would save as much as $6 million a year. But the district is hoping, through the revised financial recovery plan, to get additional state aid to help delay the reconfiguration for a year, to allow more time for students to prepare; preserve sports, the arts, all-day kindergarten and other programs; and still eliminate the $10 million deficit.

Erie schools Superintendent Jay Badams and his are developing the revised plan, which is due in about two months.

“If there is a request, I would go back to the local delegation,” Rivera said of another request for additional funding. “We would have a bigger, broader discussion with members of the General Assembly and the governor and see if we can realize that investment.

“Best case scenario: We are able to secure the additional funding and we move forward. Worst case scenario, I am told I don’t have the funding to obligate the General Assembly in moving in that direction.”

Asking for more

Rivera stopped short of saying that he would reject the revised recovery plan outright if the Erie School District requests additional funding. In denying the initial plan, on Feb. 27, Rivera said he could not approve it because the district asked the Department of Education to allocate additional funding, which only the General Assembly can do. The state never told the district to refrain from asking for more money, and the plan was premised on the district detailing what resources it needs, including state aid, to remain solvent.

At the same time, Rivera on Thursday emphasized that final approval of the revised plan would be conditional on support from the General Assembly — a big condition in Harrisburg, where Wolf, a Democrat, in February presented a proposed budget to the GOP-controlled Legislature that relies largely on spending cuts to eliminate a $2 billion deficit. Wolf wants to increase general education funding by $100 million in the final budget, due by July 1.

“So I take the plan and I sit with the members of the General Assembly and I sit with the governor and I say, here’s what is shared,” Rivera said of the Erie School District’s revised proposal.

“The difficult part is when it is a dollar amount as high as $31.8 million, when the governor is asking for a $100 million increase overall and then we are asking for almost a third of that for an individual district. I couldn’t even start a conversation with the General Assembly around that dollar amount.

“So I think a responsible submission allows us to come to the table with the General Assembly in a responsible manner.”

Rivera said he understood why the Erie School District requested the $31.8 million. It is an amount in line with what the district would receive in annual state aid if the state’s new basic education formula, which the General Assembly passed in 2016, were retroactive instead of applying to only new state funding.

“I do believe they worked hard and did their due diligence in terms of what they believe should be supported,” Rivera said.

‘We want to find a fix’

During the tour of the schools, Rivera spoke at length with Badams and Brian Polito, the Erie School District’s chief financial officer, who will become superintendent on July 1. They talked about the needs at Central and the other schools.

Rivera also met with Badams and the district’s stop staff in a private meeting at the school district administration building. Badams said the talks provided him direction, but, as before, no guarantees that the district will get additional funding.

“I feel I have a clearer sense of what is expected of us in our financial plan and I have a better understanding that our primary task will be to convince the General Assembly that Erie needs significant help,” Badams said.

“I also feel better and have a sense that PDE is advocating for us,” Badams said, referring to Rivera and the state Department of Education. “But in the meantime we are going to have continue planning for the likelihood that there isn’t anything extra for us.”

The General Assembly delivered last-minute help to the Erie School District in July 2016. As part of the state budget, it approved $4 million in one-time emergency funding so the district could balance its budget in 2016-17. In exchange, the district agreed to develop the financial recovery plan, which it submitted to the state Dec. 6.

Two Erie lawmakers who toured the schools with Rivera on Thursday said they continue to push for more funding for the Erie School District. They said they were grateful for Rivera’s visit, particularly to Central Tech.

“When you see the issues first hand, the issues are more than just accounting problems,” said state Sen. Dan Laughlin of Millcreek Township, R-49th Dist., who was elected in November and made getting additional funding for the Erie School District a main point of his campaign.

“I think they will get what they need,” state Rep. Pat Harkins of Erie, D-1st Dist., said of the Erie School District.

Harkins said he would like to see a solution that provides the Erie School District with guaranteed additional funding in the years ahead. He said he wants to prevent the district from having to plead with Harrisburg for more money each year to avoid insolvency.

“That is what the hope is,” Harkins said. “We want to find a fix for all those school districts” that are suffering.

His remarks echoed Rivera’s. He said he and Wolf want to improve funding equity for other school districts — Pennsylvania has a total of 500 — that need more money.

“The department has committed itself to advocating on behalf of Erie and school districts like Erie and will continue to do so,” Rivera said.

As for Erie’s chances for getting more funding, he said: “I am hopeful. Of course, there are so many factors that come into play.” 

Ed Palattella can be reached at 870-1813 or by email. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/ETNpalattella.

Supreme Court Ruling Trumps Gorsuch On Education For Autistic Children

Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

In 2008, Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch wrote the opinion for a three-judge unanimous federal appeals court ruling against the family of an autistic child. That decision and the language Gorsuch chose for his opinion have clouded his nomination hearings, in part because the Supreme Court he hopes to join has just issued its own unanimous decision slapping back his 2008 conclusions.

The case centered on where the bar is for public schools providing education for children under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). This act requires that our nation’s schools guarantee eligible children a free and appropriate education in the least restrictive environment. What’s been unclear, however, is what constitutes sufficient progress to demonstrate that these children are getting that. In the opinion of Gorsuch and his 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals colleagues, that bar is incredibly low. So low, in fact, that in the opinion that Gorsuch penned, he literally used the word “merely.”

The key phrase in that opinion is “must merely be ‘more than de minimis,'” which means that any progress students covered under IDEA make must “merely” be more than a bare minimum. In the 2008 case, this bar was too low for the parents of an autistic child in a Colorado school district, where their son was making limited progress. So they moved their boy to a school that offered specialized services, where he flourished. The parents sued to have the district pay for the specialized school, given that the public school had failed to give their son the free and appropriate education that federal law guaranteed him.

Reversing three earlier decisions, Gorsuch and his fellow judges ruled against the family, stating that the school had met the “merely…more than de minimis” bar.

So a boy who clearly could do well if offered appropriate accommodations deserved only–merely–just above the minimum from his public school because he was autistic. One wonders what bar Gorsuch would have set for, say, a gifted-and-talented superstar he’d perceive as languishing in general education classes. Or his own children. Would barely surpassing the minimum be OK for them?

Jeffrey Perkins, the father of the boy in the 2008 case, testified during Gorsuch’s confirmation hearings, saying:

“Thank you for the opportunity today to give voice to my son, Luke, whose access to an appropriate education, and thus to a meaningful and dignified life, was threatened by views of Judge Neil Gorsuch,” Perkins said. “Judge Gorsuch thought that an education for my son that was even one small step above insignificant was acceptable.”

The Gorsuch ruling was not the one that the Supreme Court overturned while Gorsuch sat in those confirmation hearings. Rather, it was a similar case, also out of Colorado, in which the 10th Circuit relied on the earlier opinion in deciding against a second family. The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously overturned that latter decision, and in doing so, Chief Justice John Roberts echoed Gorsuch’s standard, and not in a flattering way. According to the LA Times:

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said the school district had not met its duty under the law. Children like Endrew F. have a right to an “educational program that is reasonably calculated to enable [them] to make progress,” he said. And the learning program “must be appropriately ambitious in light of” the child’s capabilities.

This stand “is markedly more demanding than the ‘merely more than de minimus’ test applied by the 10th Circuit,” he said.

Gorsuch, under grilling from senators about the earlier decision and thorough rebuff of his opinion before the Supreme Court, said that he was “sorry” for ruling against the family in that case, adding:

“But the fact of the matter is I was bound by circuit precedent, and so was the panel of my court,” he added, while noting that there are other examples where his 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled for children with disabilities.

“If I was wrong, Senator, I was wrong because I was bound by circuit precedent, and I’m sorry,” he said.

The Supreme Court, however, unanimously begged to differ. The highest court’s ruling now means that schools must meet that more stringent standard for millions of children covered under IDEA. Given what Trump’s attorney general and secretary of education portend for this population of our nation’s schoolchildren, the decision is like a beam of light through gathering clouds.

I am a journalist and biologist. My book, The Informed Parent, with coauthor Tara Haelle, is available now. Read more about me here and find me (too often) on Twitter.

Montana universities, schools plead to restore budget cuts

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High Court Backs More Robust Standard For FAPE

In a unanimous ruling with major implications for special education, the U.S. Supreme Court said that public schools must provide students with disabilities more than a minimal benefit.

The decision issued Wednesday comes in a case known as Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District, which pitted the parents of a Colorado boy with autism against their school district.

After Endrew F. made little progress attending public school, his parents placed him at a private school and sought reimbursement. However, a lower court rejected their claim saying that reimbursement was unwarranted since the boy received “some” educational benefit.

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In reversing that ruling this week, the Supreme Court affirmed a higher standard for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act mandate that students with disabilities be provided a free appropriate public education.

“When all is said and done, a student offered an educational program providing ‘merely more than de minimis’ progress from year to year can hardly be said to have been offered an education at all,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the opinion. “The IDEA demands more.”

FAPE typically means offering “a level of instruction reasonably calculated to permit advancement through the general curriculum,” the court indicated.

However, for students who are not fully integrated in general education classrooms, Roberts wrote that individualized education programs do not need to aim for grade-level advancement, but “must be appropriately ambitious in light of (a student’s) circumstances, just as advancement from grade to grade is appropriately ambitious for most children in the regular classroom.”

“The goals may differ, but every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives,” reads the opinion.

The ruling does not go as far as the family of Endrew F. hoped. They argued that FAPE should ensure children with disabilities an education that allows them opportunities that are “substantially equal” to that of typically-developing kids. But the court determined that such a high bar would be “entirely unworkable.”

Nonetheless, disability advocates hailed the ruling as a victory.

“We expect this unanimous decision to be transformative in the lives of student with disabilities,” said Denise Marshall, executive director of the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates. “Today the (Supreme Court) affirmed what we know to be the promise of the IDEA.”

The ruling comes in the midst of Senate hearings to confirm Judge Neil Gorsuch to a seat on the Supreme Court. Gorsuch had previously ruled on a similar case and had supported the lower standard that was rejected by the high court’s ruling.

Better Marriage Between College and Job Training

In a rare point of agreement, the Trump administration and many academics would like to see less focus on colleges as work force development centers.

The administration has said too many students are being prodded toward bachelor’s degrees over apprenticeships and other noncollege options.

“We must embrace new and effective job-training approaches, including online courses, high school curriculums and private-sector investment that prepare people for trade, manufacturing, technology and other really well-paying jobs and careers,” President Trump said last week during a meeting on vocational training with U.S. and German business leaders.

“These kinds of options can be a positive alternative to a four-year degree,” he said. “So many people go to college, four years, they don’t like it, they’re not necessarily good at it, but they’re good at other things, like fixing engines and building things.”

Likewise, many in higher education, mostly at four-year institutions, resist pressure for colleges to be more attuned to their occupational role, arguing in defense of general education and decrying the transactional view of college as being primarily a means to a job.

College and faculty leaders also tend to dislike performance metrics that are based on graduates’ employment and earnings.

Yet higher education has been the federal government’s primary work force system for decades. And that is unlikely to change, experts said.

Just 6 percent of the roughly $114 billion the federal government spends annually on work force development and education goes toward noncollege job-training programs, according to data from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. (See graphic, below.)

Higher education gets a much larger share of that funding — roughly 34 percent — with K-12 receiving a similarly large portion.

“We’re spending more on job training than ever before. It’s just that the funding has moved to education,” said Mary Alice McCarthy, director of the Center on Education and Skills with the education policy program at New America and a former official at the U.S. Education and Labor Departments.

This was not always the case. Anthony Carnevale, the Georgetown center’s director, said job training and employment programs outside higher education and K-12 accounted for 40 percent of the federal work force budget in 1978.

One reason for the shift is that at least 60 percent of jobs now require at least some college education, according to the center, up from 28 percent in 1973. The trend will continue, Carnevale said.

In addition, federal spending on higher education is an easier political sell than paying for occupational or vocational programs that train workers outside college.

“It’s not the thing middle-class people want for their kids,” said Carnevale.

So higher education became the preferred system for job training, he said, a trend that began in the 1980s and accelerated during the Clinton administration, which shuttered federal job-training programs in exchange for higher education subsidies aimed at the middle class. (Employers spend $177 million a year in formal job training, the center has said, an amount that is increasing, but less quickly than overall spending on higher education.)

“Higher education became the chicken in every pot,” said Carnevale. “It moves votes.”

‘Time for a Reboot’

Yet nobody seems particularly happy about the federal government’s current approach to job training.

Bipartisan angst about the skills gap has become more urgent, as employers say they struggle to hire work-ready employees. Meanwhile, a wide range of experts said noncollege federal work force programs are inefficient, duplicative and lacking in incentives.

The current $18 billion annual federal work force budget is divvied up among roughly 50 programs.

“It’s spread across a wide range of programs for niche audiences,” said Jason Tyszko, executive director of the Center for Education and Workforce at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, who describes federal work force programs as being “stretched thin.”

The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), which was enacted in 2015 and replaced an outdated predecessor law, is the largest of the federal job-training programs. Its $3.4 billion annual budget is intended to extend across education, training and job-support services, with a goal of helping job seekers and employers as well as setting priorities for local, state and regional work force investment priorities — a big ask.

The program’s task won’t get easier, at least if the Trump administration’s budget plan takes hold in the U.S. Congress.

The White House has called for a $2.5 billion, or 21 percent, cut to the Labor Department’s $9.6 billion in annual funding. While Trump’s budget document was relatively light on details, the National Skills Coalition projected that it would result in as much as a 50 percent cut to WIOA’s budget.

The White House plan also would decrease “federal support for job training and employment service formula grants, shifting more responsibility for funding these services to states, localities and employers.”

A broad coalition of work force and labor groups criticized the proposed cuts, calling them unnecessary and inconsistent with the Trump administration’s job-creation goals.

But Tyszko, citing two 2011 Government Accountability Office reports that described wasteful overlap and fragmentation of federal work force programs, said funding levels aren’t the main problem.

“Throwing more money at these programs and how they run could actually have diminishing returns,” he said.

Likewise, a broad range of experts agreed with Tyszko that the time is ripe for the federal government to reconsider its approach to occupational training.

“There really needs to be a fundamental reconciliation between higher education and work force development,” said Maria Flynn, president and CEO of Jobs for the Future and a former official with the Labor Department’s Employment and Training Administration.

Better coordination between the Labor and Education Departments is needed, she said, with particular attention to the interplay between WIOA and the Pell Grant program, which is the primary federal grant for low-income students. (The Trump budget would cut $3.9 billion from the Pell program’s reserves.)

There are some signs that the two systems are being steered together, Flynn said.

For example, she cited a bipartisan legislative proposal in the U.S. Senate that would allow students to use Pell Grants for short-term job-training credentials, such as college-issued certificates. Currently Pell can be applied only to programs that take more than 15 weeks or 600 clock hours to complete.

Other promising ideas Flynn mentioned include an Education Department experiment that is granting temporary access to federal financial aid for noncollege training entities, including skills boot camps and online course providers, under partnerships with accredited colleges on job training in high-demand fields.

Likewise, Flynn said the college and career pathways approach championed by the Bill Melinda Gates Foundation and the American Association of Community Colleges can help students follow a more structured route to completion and a job.

Structured pathways share some resemblance to the German model of nudging students toward an occupation earlier in their academic career, she said, without the controversial student “tracking” that’s a tough sell in this country.

“In the U.S. there’s some middle ground we can get to,” she said, “by really emphasizing the idea of pathways.”

Likewise, McCarthy and others said the federal government could do more to prevent students from having to spend more time and money than is necessary on vocational training.

Perverse incentives, she said, encourage colleges to make academic programs credit bearing and longer than might be ideal. For example, some medical assistant and early childhood programs were noncredit in the past. But to make those offerings financially viable, McCarthy said, many community colleges and for-profits began offering credit-bearing options in those fields.

One overarching fix to the lack of coordination on job training, according to McCarthy, would be for some Labor Department programs to be folded into Congress’s looming reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, which is the law that oversees federal aid. She said that shared focus could benefit college-based occupational training, too.

“We have to bring what we know about good training quality to the higher education side,” said McCarthy. “It’s definitely time for a reboot.”

Market for Apprentices

Apprenticeships in particular appear to be in vogue as the GOP dominates both federal and state policy making.

The president and Ivanka Trump, his daughter, met last week with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and a group of corporate executives from the U.S. and Germany to discuss vocational training. Ivanka Trump said the executives would form a task force that would produce a report on training programs that should be expanded.

President Trump reportedly has embraced a call by one of those executives to create five million apprenticeships within five years. That would be a steep increase from the current number of apprentices — roughly 450,000 — who are enrolled in Labor Department-registered programs, according to McCarthy.

The White House has pushed for private funding for apprenticeships and job training, with Ivanka Trump reportedly saying last week that “ingenuity, creativity often comes from the determination of the private sector.” And last year Congress added $90 million in funding for apprentice programs.

The Trump budget says it will help states expand apprenticeships, although it doesn’t specify new money for them. But the $1 trillion in infrastructure spending the White House has said it is mulling probably would include funding for apprenticeships and other job training. (Carnevale’s center projects that 55 percent of jobs created under such a program would not require any college, with 60 percent of new infrastructure jobs requiring no more than six months of on-the-job training.)

Some observers said the current structure of the Labor Department’s apprenticeship program can be balky. To participate, companies often must file voluminous applications and wait months for the feds to respond.

“It’s a bureaucratic process where those who are good at filling out papers get the funds,” said Ryan Craig, co-founder of University Ventures, an investment firm. “Government is ill positioned to pick winners.”

As a result, Craig is focused on job-training “intermediaries” between colleges and employers, where the money comes from job seekers or from employers themselves. Examples include Revature, an employer-funded training firm, and boot camps like Galvanize and General Assembly.

Yet there’s a role for government in promoting apprenticeships, Craig said.

He cites the United Kingdom’s apprenticeship levy, which goes into effect next month. The U.K. is requiring all employers with an annual payroll of more than 3 million pounds ($3.74 million) to pay a tax of 0.5 percent of their payroll amount on apprenticeships, with the government kicking in an extra 10 percent “top-up” to those apprenticeship funds.

Craig called the levy an exciting idea, which, if combined with the right incentives and outcomes requirements, would be worth a look in this country.

“We need to figure out how to spawn a market here,” he said.